Dar es Salaam — A Tanzanian court has charged 32 people with murder after five women suspected of witchcraft were beaten to death, and their corpses burned, in a move which could help to deter such killings.
It is the first time a mob has been charged with witch killings, said Athanasia Soka, chairwoman of the Tanzania Women Lawyers Association, although hundreds of suspected witches are murdered in the east African country each year.
The suspects, among them the leader of a local militia, are accused of killing the women in Tanzania’s western Tabora region on July 25, state attorney Melito Ukongoji told a magistrates court on Monday.
“I am happy to see that authorities are taking appropriate actions to prevent violent crimes against innocent women,” said Lweno Masali, a local resident.
Most of the women were beaten to death before being burned, a police spokesman told Reuters.
Rights groups have lobbied for the government to step up prosecutions, but it is usually very difficult for the government to identify people who have taken part in such crimes.
Tanzanians’ belief in witchcraft dates back centuries as a way of explaining common misfortunes like death, failed harvests and infertility, although this is often a smokescreen for other disputes, such as over land.
Thousands of elderly Tanzanian women have been strangled, stabbed to death, and burned or buried alive over the last two decades after being denounced as witches.
Women with red eyes are often accused of being witches.
The suspects did not enter any pleas because the court does not have the jurisdiction to preside over murder cases.
They were remanded in jail until Sept. 4, when the case will move to a higher court.
Almost 500 people were killed by mob justice in the first six months of 2017, many of them women accused of witchcraft, Tanzania’s Legal and Human Rights Center said.
Most of the murders took place in the large city of Dar es Salaam and in the southern highlands where superstitions are strongly held, it said.